Athens City School Board Candidates Share Vision At Open Forum

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Topics covered by Athens City School Board candidates included challenges faced by the district, stances on the use of school resource officers and their vision for the district. The candidates spoke to a near-full room during an open forum at the Athens Public Library Tuesday.

Incumbents Christian Gerig and Bruce Nottke face newcomers Kimberly Goldsberry and Alan Swank for three open seats. Current President Jeff Dill did not seek re-election.

Gerig, 46, a local attorney, is completing his first four-year term. He’s a lifelong resident of Athens and a graduate of the district. He graduated from West Point and Capital University Law School. He’s a past president of East Elementary’s Parent Teacher Organization and has two children enrolled in the district.

Goldsberry, 41, was present via Skype, as she was out-of-town attending a conference. She works partly as a stay-at-home mother and also in marketing and advertising for Goldsberry Wealth Strategies. Previously, she worked in advertising for a television station in Parkersburg and then in pharmaceutical sales. She is the past president of East Elementary’s PTO. Her three children are enrolled in the school system.

Nottke, 64, is completing his 12th year on the board. Nottke is semi-retired, occasionally working on projects for RVC architects. Previously, Nottke worked in machine design in North Canton. Locally, he’s worked for Sunpower, Inc., Panich and Noel Architects and Ohio University. He settled in Athens after serving in the Navy. His wife retired as a teacher from the Trimble Local School district. Both of his children graduated from Athens City Schools.

Alan Swank, 58, started his career in the classroom and later entered the yearbook business. He currently serves as the regional vice president for a yearbook company. Prior to settling in Athens, he studied at Muskingum University and taught high school social studies for two years in northern Ohio. After graduate school at Ohio University, he served as an Occupational Work Adjustment teacher at Athens High School. The program was designed for at-risk students. His children graduated from Athens City Schools.

One of the biggest challenges the district faces right now and going forward, according to Gerig, is finances.

“You can’t get away from that issue,” he said, adding state funds are continually reduced while unfunded mandates are added.

During his first term, he said he and the board found ways to save, but they also faced tough decisions along the way, like the decision to close Chauncey Elementary. He noted the board’s decision to redo the bonds will drop the interest rates by 2 percent after 2017. The board cut utility bills through efficiency projects and by signing a new natural gas contract that locked in lower rates.

A challenge Goldsberry sees is inequity across school buildings. During her term as president of East Elementary’s PTO, she helped raise funds for smartboards. She is now working on raising funds for a computer lab. She said she wants to see the same type of support and resources offered to students across the district.

“Schools are not equal,” she said. “The elementary schools have better technology than the upper grades. That’s kind of sad. If we can make our schools more level in terms of technology and programs to give every student an opportunity, I would say that’s one of our goals we should try to reach.”

Nottke said the biggest challenge is that “the state keeps taking money away from us.” At the same time, the district is expected to comply with added unfunded mandates.

Swank said one of the challenges of the district is meeting the needs of students on both ends of the spectrum. Part of his job as an OWA teacher at Athens High School involved home visits, an experience he said opened his eyes to rural poverty. On the most recent report card, he noted, the district received three Fs. Two of those dealt with disadvantaged and less fortunate students.

“We need to take care of those students,” he said.

He added the district needs to address the needs of gifted students as well and said the district needs to offer a comprehensive curriculum that challenges and meets the needs of all students.

None of the candidates supported hiring an armed school resource officer.

“Not gonna happen on my watch,” Gerig said, adding it’d be impractical given the number of buildings. It would add $300,000 annually to the district’s budget, he said.

Shortly after the shooting at Sandy Hook, Goldsberry said she helped form a group at East Elementary that met with school officials, city officials and local law enforcement representatives to discuss ways to improve the district’s security. The group has since evolved into a monthly coalition. She is not in favor of an armed SRO.

Hiring an SRO is “the last thing on my list,” said Nottke. He noted the district made upgrades to the security systems, including buzzers and cameras, at each of the buildings after the incident at Sandy Hook.
Swank said he didn’t think the community would support an armed SRO, something he agreed with.

“My vote would be no, not in favor, even if the money were there,” Swank said.

When discussing the future of the district, candidates focused on curriculum, upgrades to infrastructure and technology.

Gerig said the district’s focus should be in providing the basics of education. The adoption of the Common Core will make students competitive with the rest of the world, Gerig said.

Goldsberry said the new curriculum has presented some challenges. She’d like to have the district evaluate the courses offered and possibly eliminate classes that are no longer used to make room for programs “that may be more geared to the 21st century,” she said.

Nottke said that although there are flaws in the curriculum, “it’s a good one.” Most students who graduate, he said, feel ready for college.

A challenge going forward for the district, according to Swank, is deciding how to configure the physical structure of the district, which will soon be eligible for assistance from the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission.

He also said the district “has a lot of work to do” in providing relevant classes. Although computers are used throughout the district, no school offers a computer class. He would also like to see a more robust arts programming across the district.